How do we come to believe what we believe? Sound artist Alan Nakagawa delves into this question in his “Myth Not Myth” project, which focuses on myths we learn about art and culture, especially in the context of museums. In this excerpt from his interview with Getty Museum educator Erin Branham, she discusses how modern culture often wrongfully colors how we perceive ancient art.

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Sound artist Alan Nakagawa and Getty Museum educator Erin Branham

Sound artist Alan Nakagawa and Getty Museum educator Erin Branham

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“Myth Not Myth” project description

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Transcript

[Instrumental music interspersed throughout]

ERIN BRANHAM: Well, there’s the, you know, what is “true”?

ALAN NAKAGAWA: What is true?

BRANHAM: What is true? Exactly. What is true? What is truth? I am, I mean one of the reasons I like stories, it’s—what is it Picasso said? “Art is a lie that tells the truth?”

NAKAGAWA: Mm-hmm. [affirmative]

BRANHAM: So, that is something I think. So, you read a great fictional story, you know it’s not, it’s not telling you things that actually happened, and yet it may hit upon something that is tremendously true—

NAKAGAWA: Right.

BRANHAM: —about human nature, of existence, or relationships, or, you know, any of those kinds of things.

You know, historical—is there some reality to a legend? That’s part of what is very … I do a tour at the Villa about the Trojan War because for, you know, hundreds and hundreds of years, it was considered to be <i>just</i> a legendary story, just a piece of literature from the ancient world. And then one guy comes along and he’s like, “No, I think was real. I think there actually was a Troy.” And people were like, “You’re nuts.” And then he went and found it. And it now, now everybody accepts that yes, absolutely this is where, this is the historical seed of those, of that great mythology. It’s very—I’m fascinated by that.

You know, most ancient collections are just in a wing of the museum. So, you go from over here, and there’s impressionist paintings, and here’s the Greek hall, and there’s the statues. So the Villa, with its sort of immersive setting of an ancient Roman villa, and what one actually looked like, and the art placed in that space, and the floors done in reproduction Roman mosaics, and the outer peristyle walls done in reproduction frescos . . . it is a way of sort of stepping back into time, and that kind of period setting has been frowned upon in museums for a while. But I really like it. I think it adds a really fascinating sense to exploration and understanding how this art functioned at the time, by having it in this kind of a place. So, it’s a unique museum and was tons and tons of fun to work at.

You know, sort of our general approach to ancient culture is—some of the myths that you’ll hear is, “Well, they invented democracy in, you know, ancient Athens.” I’m like, “Well, yeah, if democracy means that you were rich, and a man, and owned property, then you know—because that was the only people who got to vote, and so . . .” There’s a lot of exalting of the ancient Greeks. When you get down into it, there’s a lot of ugly parts of their culture, too. They were slave owners. They hated women. They like just … There’s a ton of stuff that’s quite unpleasant about them. And yet, if you go look at your average, like, BBC documentary, they’ll just tell you how marvelous the Greeks were and how we owe so much to them because they were just the pinnacle of ancient civilization. So, the misconceptions that I’ve seen have been sort of like that, this kind of a misplacing how terrific it all was without understanding that, well, no, there’s, there were some down sides to all of this, too. And we generally will get into that sort of stuff, talk about it, so people can understand a little better.

One of the most fascinating things we discovered—I was doing a program called the Villa Teen Apprentices, so we had a group of high school students, who worked with us over the course of a year, and their final project was they were going to take over the Getty’s social media channels. And so for a week, they did blog posts and Twitter and Facebook and all this sort of stuff. So we were looking for interesting things, interesting approaches to ancient Greek and Roman material that these teens could—that they found compelling and that they could speak about—and one of the things that came up was Roman graffiti.

So, the Romans were really big on graffiti, and women, who had no political power—couldn’t vote, couldn’t participate—were big on political graffiti. They would write their opinions on the walls and so that was the way that they had a voice and had some influence. And there were all these other cases of, all over the Colosseum, there were all of these places that people had written things, and they would have conversations. So, somebody would write—one of the most famous ones that we found was somebody wrote, “You need to leave Barmaid Bella alone. She doesn’t love you, she loves me.” And then the other guy comes over and goes, “You’re wrong. She told me that she loves me, and she’s just messing with you.” And it goes on for like 5 or 6 exchanges between these 2 guys over this woman and it’s hilarious because they’re relatively short, because you’re writing on a wall, so it’s Twitter.

NAKAGAWA: Right.

BRANHAM: It’s just, it’s ancient Twitter, and the kids loved it. They were fascinated by it.

In ancient Greek art, you have all these male nudes, right, because the youthful male nude was the height of human beauty. So there’s one thing that we do that’s about the height of human beauty and this concept that—the difference is one of those places where something’s very different in the ancient Greek world versus our world because in their world, the perfect, most beautiful human being was about an 18-year-old young male and in our culture, the most beautiful human being in the world is probably an 18-year-old young female. So, you know, what happened there that it went from male to female? There’s a whole discussion around that. It’s just basically that they were misogynists, so they would not consider a woman the most perfect of anything.

But, in these, in all of these statues over and over again, the penises are relatively small. And people are always interested in that. Not very many people ask about it, but I’ve had it asked often enough that I know that everybody’s wondering about it.

NAKAGAWA: True.

BRANHAM: So, they will say that’s one of those misconceptions. Frequently around here I’ll hear people talking about it, and they go, “I guess they were just small.” And so people have occasionally asked about it. I say, “No, there’s actually a very specific reason for that.” It was symbolic for the ancient Greeks that you were not ruled by your bestial nature. So, if you look at the fully formed human being, it is to emphasize the rational over the animal. And if you look at the satyrs, who are on all these faces and things like that—these are the ones that are half-goat from the bottom—they always have these great, big, erect phalluses. That is because that symbolizes they are in thrall to their bestial impulses, and the human being is not.

Part of the problem is that our culture is obsessed with size. We think that is important, that there’s some connection to virility, or attractiveness, or something that’s wrapped up in that. And so that doesn’t exist in this culture, so that’s one thing. But then the other thing was that they actually de-emphasized it, which people will just be baffled by that.

NAKAGAWA: Right.

BRANHAM: “What do you mean they de-emphasized the penis?” They’ll say that, “Weren’t they embarrassed?” I’m like, “No, because that was not the thing. That’s our thing. That’s not their thing.” But, it’s a place where people really grapple with a kind of core—and it’s interesting because it’s not polite conversation in our culture—

NAKAGAWA: Right.

BRANHAM: —so people grapple with it, but quietly because it’s not polite to talk about it. It gets into these areas of sex, shame, body image, and things that are really fraught in our culture. And when you tell people things like, “Well, the ancient Greeks competed, did all of their sports competition in the nude,” and again you’ll see that sort of, you know, that just tenses out people in modern-day America. And they just don’t like to think about that, because, you know, we have a black bar over the penis in our—

NAKAGAWA: Right.

BRANHAM: —in our culture. So that’s always a kind of funny one. And it’s interesting because it has such a deep cultural meaning to the Greeks, that there’s a reason why you do that and it means a lot to what their conception of themselves, as rational creatures, not like the animals. And then in our culture there’s this kind of total flip to it, and so when people today see those statues, whole range of reactions happens that have nothing to do with what was actually going on in that statue.

[Instrumental music interspersed throughout]

ERIN BRANHAM: Well, there’s the, you know, what is “true”?

ALAN NAKAGAWA: What is true?

BRANHAM: What is true? Exactly. What is true? What is truth? I am, I mean one of the reasons I like stories, it’s—what is it ...